When we left off, Graham and I were excitedly plotting our route to hopefully find a manatee or two and see pretty springs over the next couple of days. While we were talking and cooking dinner, the rain we left behind in North Carolina made its way to Florida and it started pouring. We moved under the tent vestibule to finish dinner and then headed to bed. The next morning we woke up to clear skies, but much colder weather.
We bundled up and went about exploring the first spring of the day. Juniper Springs, which the campground was named for, was a short hike from our campsite. The springs themselves were pretty, but lacked the more natural feel that some of the springs we had seen on our previous trip had. The most interesting feature was the water wheel that had originally been used to power the park.
After we saw Juniper Springs, we took the nature trail to the other spring at the park, Fern Hammock Springs. Fern Hammock springs was beautiful with bright blue water and multiple springs that bubbled right up in the sand. It was significantly less developed and you weren’t allowed to enter the water because it was considered environmentally fragile. Even though your couldn’t get in it was absolutely worth the hike to see it.
We packed up and headed to our next location of the day, Blue Springs State Park in Orange City. It was in completely in the wrong direction from our camp spot that night but the guidebook said this was our best chance to see manatees. On our trip the previous year, we had canoed to Manatee Springs because we figured since it was named after a Manatee there would likely be some there, but unfortunately we were wrong. We drove towards Blue Springs singing our theme song for this trip, Barbara Manatee from veggie tales (did anyone else love veggie tales as a kid?). We were hopeful about seeing the elusive animal and were elated when we heard from the park ranger that there were manatees present in the park. Unfortunately it was at the same time he was telling us that there was a 45 minute wait to get into the park?!??!? After we sat for what felt like forever on the dirt entrance road to the park we finally made it inside and got to see the manatees.
The park was large, and there was a boardwalk with observation decks that went along the spring run. You weren’t allowed to be in the water because the park is a Manatee refuge, but there were plenty of opportunities to see them. We watched the manatees for a good long time taking lots of pictures. Then we got back in the car to head back across the state to Manatee Spring State Park, our home for the next two nights. We arrived just in time to have a short hike with the dogs, before making a fire, cooking dinner, and calling it a night.
Our plan for the next day was to enjoy a few of the local springs and then do some canoeing at Manatee Springs. First up was Fanning Springs State Park. The spring itself was pretty, but I more enjoyed the natural trail that wound through the spring run and cypress trees.
We ate lunch at the concessions stand and Manatee Springs, and were pleasantly surprised by how good the barbecue was. I was also pleasantly surprised they didn’t get grumpy when I asked four thousand questions about how the barbecue was prepared and for no bun on my sandwich once I determined it was safe for me to eat. After lunch we got the canoe out with no major expectations other than a pretty paddle. Boy were we surprised when Manatee after Manatee saw right by and under our canoe. Ellie was still extremely adverse to the canoe and Hugo really wanted to get out and play with the manatees so I sent most of my time in the boat wrestling with those two. Despite the distractions, it was still completely amazing floating around and watching these peaceful creatures swim right by.
We floated around until almost dark and then packed up the canoe. We then headed back to camp to ring the new year by the campfire. I definitely fell asleep before midnight, but the cannon fire and explosions from the nearby farms easily woke me up to let me know the new year had arrived. The next day we headed to the Crystal River area of Florida where we had been told that you could swim in the water with the Manatees. We had already had an amazing trip but getting to be in the water with the Manatees would be icing on the cake. We easily found the park and decided it was probably a good sign when the tour boats were dropping off snorkelers in the swimming area. The water was cold, but tolerable and there were lots of Manatees all around. The Manatees seemed pretty curious about me, it was probably because I was the only person around wearing a bright pink swim shirt, and one of the little ones even swam up and touched me. It was probably the most exciting thing about the whole trip.
We swam until we were too cold to continue and then headed to our final destination of the trip, the Gulf of Mexico!